Cassie Cramer takes a break from walking the prison yard at Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center. She’s training an 8-month-old Mastiff mix named Kingston. Cramer pulls treats out of her pocket and encourages the puppy to show off.
“Down. Good girl! Bang,” Cramer told the dog. “This is her new trick: you shoot her and she'll fall over. She's so smart!”
Pups In Prison
Cramer is one of eight incarcerated women training dogs at the facility. She and Kingston have been working together for three weeks.
In general, offenders work for 6 to 12 weeks with a single dog to ensure they’ll be adoptable once the Guardian Angels program ends. And for most inmates, this job is entirely new.
A professional dog trainer from Full Circle Obedience comes in once a month to work with the inmates and the dogs, but Cramer says Kingston looks to her more than anyone else. Kingston lives with Cramer in her cell, after all.
Most dogs have been abandoned or are considered unadoptable because of behavior issues before arriving at the prison. Kingston likes to chew on things.
“We're not here because we're perfect, and that goes for them too,” Cramer said. “They come here because they have problems, and we train it out of them. Yeah, it can be a handful and the cells are small and the dogs get big.”
Cramer and her cellmate both have dogs and crates in their cell at Mabel Bassett. They’re the only two offenders living together who both have dogs. It makes a cramped space even tighter, but it encourages Cramer to keep her living space clean.
“I just keep my shoes put up,” Cramer laughs. “I don't come from a very good background, but this is something positive in my life.”
‘Phoenix Rising From The Ashes’
Right off the main yard, there’s a concrete slab with a few cement-block walls going up. There are plans for it to become a multidisciplinary building, with yoga classes, dog grooming classes and other training programs.
“It's kind of like the phoenix rising from the ashes, here it is, coming up,” John Otto, a veterinarian based in Norman, said.
Otto calls the new, privately-funded building at Mabel Bassett building a phoenix because it’s been a long time coming.
“Once I got the cement slab in, I thought, ‘Well, we'll get a mason crew.’ Then I had to go through 14 crews before I could find one that could qualify to come in here,” Otto said.
Construction crews can’t have felony records, can’t smoke and can’t bring cell phones inside the prison. Prior to securing a mason crew, Otto screened a handful of concrete companies and builders before finding ones who would abide by the strict rules.
Despite the setbacks, Otto says he’s stuck with the program because he’s invested in Oklahoma.
“I've spent 20 years volunteering doing this," Otto said. "I'd never do it if I didn't believe what it does for people and the animals. It saves lives, and it saves not only the animal's life but the person's life.”
There haven’t been quantitative studies on inmate dog training programs, but similar rehabilitation efforts take place across the country.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Family Social Work acknowledges the gap in research, and offered documented qualitative findings.
“Participants believe that the dogs help them to deal with anger, teach them patience, give them unconditional love, and simply make doing time a little easier,” the study notes.
Otto says the difference in offenders’ attitudes is palpable.
“A lot of these animals have been given up, they're just not trainable or whatever, and a lot of the offenders have been given up on too. But to have them come together and form this relationship and go on to help others, it's such a beautiful thing. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Otto said.
He hopes to obtain grant money to conduct a quantitative study with the men who have participated in Lexington’s Friends for Folks program, which has been around for more than two decades. To his knowledge, Otto says such a study would be the first of its kind.
The dogs come in cycles, live with the inmates, and then they’re adopted out. The women in the program get another dog immediately, often within a few hours, but Mabel Bassett warden Debbie Aldridge says not all offenders are cut out for graduation day.
“I've had some of the prior inmates who just couldn't do it because they had to give up the dog, so they asked to come off the program 'cause it's a little hard for 'em sometimes,” Aldridge said.
The Guardian Angels program is fairly new to Mabel Bassett - it’s only been going on for two years. Offenders need spotless records before they’re considered as trainers.
“There's not much tolerance. They have to tow a pretty straight line to be in,” Otto said.
“It's a privilege to be in the program. It's not a right by any means, and that's how we want to keep it.”
Aldridge says she limits the time a woman can be a trainer to one year.
“We've got a long waiting list wanting to go, so it gives them a chance to learn, but it gives the other offenders a chance to learn too,” Aldridge said.
Cassie Cramer isn’t getting out of prison anytime soon. She says it can get lonely. Her brother is also incarcerated and her sister lives out of state, so Kingston fills a gap.
“I’ll tell you what, not all of us have a lot of family, and you can tell these dogs all of your secrets,” Cramer said, choking back tears.
When she does get out, Cramer hopes to use her skills to become a dog trainer. She knows how difficult it can be to find a job as a convicted felon. She sees her new skill as a second chance, both for her and Kingston.
“It's really amazing. It's unconditional love, and that's what they have. It's hard to let them go, but they're getting out of here, where a lot of us don't," Cramer said.
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